Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

5 Monologues: The Drama Of The Rising Wind

Damned Theatre Opens With Provocative Historical Drama In An Organic Period Setting

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I was a part of the final audience of The Damned last night . . . (actually, it was the final audience of Damned Theatre’s first show: A Rising Wind: The Lady Elgin Story. A drama written by Edward Morgan and John Kishline about one of the greatest naval tragedies in the histories of the Great Lakes.) 

The show’s one-weekend-only performances took place entirely at the Best Place Tavern at the Historic Pabst Brewery on 901 West Juneau. Not long before the show started, someone in the audience said the place looked like the galley of a ship from 150 years ago. The observation had some merit--The building the tavern rests in has a history that goes back at least 150 years. In his opening curtain speech, Edward Morgan said the space had been a classroom at the time the Lady Elgin sank after a collision with a freighter, killing hundreds just a few years before the dawn of the American Civil War. 

 

Amidst the warmth of carved wood, the hush of the stage lights and the distant murmur of patrons in another section of the bar, the story took hold. Mrgan and Kishline deliver setting, style and personality quite well in a series of monologues performed by five different characters. The organic, period feel of the performance space and tastefully iconic look of Peter Mortenson’s period costume design were surprisingly effective at giving the feel of day-to-day life a century and a half ago.

Play’s co-author John Kishline plays German reporter Fritz Haas, who delivers narrative that ties together and provides context for the narratives of the other four characters. The old, 19th Century German reporter is probably the most traditional image of ancient Milwaukee most people conjure. He’s an excellent personality for the drama, but not the first to speak.

The first to speak in the show is Sherrick Robinson in the role of Joshua Glover—a man who may not be tied very closely with the sinking of the Lady Elgin, but one who played a rather large and iconic role in the civil war-era history of the state of Wisconsin, thus illustrating part of the social dynamic of the period. Robinson makes for a passionate Joshua—brimming with fiery life and looking to move on from the slavery in his past.

Jonathan Wainwright plays an Irish immigrant named O’Brien. During the era, the Irish were discriminated against almost as harshly as the African Americans. Wainwright plays the downtrodden face of that ancient prejudice with admirably resilient poise. A man who had been knocked about from New York to various places in the Midwest only to land in Milwaukee under the command of a highly influential man of Irish descent, there’s a world-weary swagger to Wainwright’s O’Brien that serves to balance the working class end of the play quite effectively.

Georgina McKee also plays an Irish girl who finds herself a passenger on the ill-fated final voyage of the Lady Elgin. The Irish brogues between McKee and Wainwright were prominent enough to give the right ethnic flavor without feeling forced and artificial. She’s playing an eighteen-year-old girl, but McKee’s still young enough to be age-appropriate for the role and experienced enough onstage not to over-emphasize the character’s youth. There were some survivors of the Lady Elgin disaster and McKee’s vastly sympathetic performance makes it very difficult not to hope that hers might be one of those who makes it ashore at the end of the story. 

Peter J. Woods rounds out the cast as Terret--a young member of the crew of the schooner The Augusta, which inadvertently rammed the Lady Elgin in a rainstorm, causing it to sink. The politics aboard the boat extend the whole pre-Civil War social dynamic in interesting ways. Woods plays a man who loves to sail, but may not be perfectly articulate at relaying this passion to other people. The words feel a bit leaden in places, but there’s a real passion in Woods’ performance. He looks off into the distance and speaks of a passion for sailing . . . and his eyes seem locked in some spectral seascape. AS actor/playwright Woods has done remarkably well in some of his own experimental stuff in the past. It’s interesting to see him branch out into performing in a drama that is a bit more mainstream. Given the right exposure, he could help bridge a gap between mainstream audiences and those who prefer more offbeat experimental work.  

This weekend is the 150th anniversary of the disaster in lake Michigan. Yesterday’s performance was also the 9th anniversary of the suicidal hijacking of 4 passenger airliners that changed the U.S. in a big way. There we were on the anniversary of a nearly decade-old mass death amongst contemporary actors in a period space commemorating a mass death from a century and a half ago. There was kind of a rare eclipse of eras that took place in that space last night. From Civil War to Petroleum Wars, from 19th to 21st. Time is irrelevant. On a sympathetic parallel timeline, we’re all the same people.    

Damned Theatre’s A Rising Wind ran for one weekend only September 8 – 11. The next Damned project has yet to be announced, but the group still plans on doing a Demon Bargain show at some undefined point in the future.  

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